Newspapers and Slavery


This material was written with middle and high school students in mind. Teachers are advised to read this page before using it in class, since much of this content is not appropriate for young students.

Click here for a sheet of quiz questions that go with this material.

Very few photographs were taken of slaves. This photo, taken by the Union Army, shows former who had previously been enslaved
in Virginia who fled to the Union lines during the war.
PHOTO: Library of Congress

Before the Civil War, one-fourth of Tennessee residents were African-American slaves. However — regardless of whether a person was a slave, a slaveholder or neither — everyone who lived in Tennessee was affected by slavery.

You don’t have to look any further than newspapers to understand this.

More than 100 different newspapers existed in Tennessee between 1791 and 1865. Most came out weekly and totaled only four pages. Some of these newspapers survived for only a few months; some for decades. Almost every one of them contained slavery-related advertisements.

These ads can be divided into six types, each of which tells you much about the institution of slavery:

1) “Runaway slave” ads

When a slave ran away, their slaveholder often ran a newspaper ad offering a reward if they were returned. These ads described the enslaved person’s appearance; what they were wearing at the time they ran away; any special skills or unusual talents that the slave might have had; and often predicted what direction the enslaved person might have been heading.

Nashville Republican, March 29, 1834

A recent study found 906 different runaway slave ads published in Tennessee between 1791 and 1864. Most of these ads sought a single runaway slave, but some sought as many as nine enslaved people who had run away together.

We will never know how many of these runaways made it to freedom and how many were caught and returned to their slaveholders. We do know that a slave who ran away did so at the risk of being beaten if they were caught. Enslaved people who ran away also knew that if they were caught, they might be sold to a different slaveholder in another part of the country (a process that became known as being “sold down the river.”)

The mayor of Nashville bought this ad in the
newspaper on Aug. 12, 1834

Runaway slave ads were always signed by the slaveholder. Most of these slaveholders were men whose names we don’t recognize today, but some were very prominent people. Among the Tennessee slaveholders who purchased and published runaway slave ads were Presidents Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk, industrialist Montgomery Bell; Memphis co-founder John Overton, U.S. Senator Felix Grundy, and Chickasaw Indian Chief George Colbert.

The government of Nashville owned 26 slaves. Part of the job of Nashville mayor was to write and purchase runaway slave ads when one or more of them ran away (something that happened at least twice!)


Nashville Daily Union, May 11, 1864

2) “Slave apprehended” ads

It was the duty of all law enforcement officials to catch and arrest runaway slaves. When they caught runaways, state law required the sheriff to publish a newspaper ad describing the apprehended slave and alerting the public that the slave would be kept in jail until the slaveholder came forward with proof that the enslaved person “belonged” to him or her.

Tennessee newspapers ran even more “slave apprehended” ads than they did “runaway slave” ads — probably because many slaves from Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia would try to pass through Tennessee after they had escaped. In 1862, for instance, a single issue of the Nashville Daily Republican newspaper contained 37 “slave apprehended” ads, all purchased by the sheriff and paid for by the local government.

Tennessee law allowed for “unclaimed” slaves to be sold at auction by the sheriff’s office after one year. It also allowed apprehended slaves to be put to work while in jail.

3) “Slave for sale” ads

Nashville Whig, June 5, 1819

When people have something they want to sell today, they often buy ads in newspapers or on a website. The same was true in Tennessee in 1840. When slaveholders wanted to sell slaves, they would advertise the fact in the newspaper.

The item on the right, for example, said that the slaveholder was trying to sell five enslaved people whose varied in age from 10 to 26. Richland Creek, by the way, runs right through Nashville — past present-day St. Thomas Hospital and the Green Hills section of town.

Nashville Republican Banner, April 20, 1839

The ad on the left meanwhile, publicized the sale of an unnamed 10 or 11 year old girl who was being sold because the slaveholder had “no use for her.”

4) Professional slave trader ads

In 2018, Dr. Leorotha Williams of Tennessee State University, along with several of his students, helped dedicate this marker, where Nashville’s main slave trading yard had once been located.

Professional slave traders were constantly buying newspaper ads, and these types of ads are a category all of their own because of their regularity and prominence. In the 1840s and 1850s, professional slave traders might purchase as many as 5 or 6 advertisements per issue of a newspaper, making them the largest advertisers in both Nashville and Memphis!

These professional slave traders had “slave yards” in places such as Nashville, Clarksville and Memphis. There, they kept as many as 200 slaves at any time behind bars, in what would appear to us to be a private jail of sorts. These enslaved people might be bought or sold there, so sent from there to another part of the country.

Memphis Daily Eagle and Enquirer, Jan. 8, 1853

The largest slave trading firm in Tennessee history was Bolton, Dickins & Company. Its headquarters was in Memphis, but it also had full-time “slave marts” in Memphis, New Orleans, Vicksburg, Mobile, Lexington (Kentucky), Richmond, St. Louis and Charleston.

No photographs of slave coffles exist. However, here is a sketch of one that was published in 1815.
IMAGE: Library of Congress

Between 1847 and 1856, Bolton, Dickins & Co. made most of its money buying slaves in Virginia and the Carolinas (where slaves were plentiful) and selling them in Mississippi and Louisiana (where slave labor was in heavy demand).

When slaves had to be moved from one part of the country to the other, they were often chained together in what was referred to as a coffle. In the pre-Civil War South, it was not unusual to see a coffle of as many as 300 slaves being herded down the road, heading to far away destinations such as Natchez or New Orleans.

Routine ads for Bolton, Dickins & Company proclaimed that the business wanted to buy as many as 500 slaves. This number was meant to convey the message that the firm had enough cash on hand to buy as many slaves as anyone brought to them.

5) Chancery Court slave sales

Nashville Republican Banner, Jan. 1849

Today, when a person dies, their assets are often sold so that their value can be divided among their children. The most valuable of these assets (today) include things such as houses, cars, money, and stocks and bonds.

Athens Post, Feb. 20, 1857

For much the same reason, when slaveholders died, slaves often had to be sold.

When a prominent slaveholder died, the job of selling slaves often fell to the Chancery Court Clerk and Master in each county. If you look in old Tennessee newspapers you will often find ads purchased by these court officials.

These newspaper items alerted the public to the news that slaves were being sold on an upcoming date, often at the county courthouse. The enslaved people to be sold were often listed in some detail — with their names and ages and such. The number of slaves to be sold at these Chancery Court sales might vary from 1 to 22 to more than 400!

An Ohio native named William Fletcher King attended a Chancery Court sale at the Rutherford County Courthouse on January 1, 1854. According to his autobiography, “a crowd of two or three hundred men” attended the outdoor slave auction, and she was sold while she “held a young babe in her arms.”

6) “Slave labor needed” ads

Nashville Republican, Sept. 25, 1835

When people think about slavery, they often visualize a situation where slaves work directly for their slaveholders, on plantations. However, some slaveholders “farmed out” their slaves to do other types of jobs. Under this arrangement, the wages that would haveĀ  otherwise been earned by the slave went to the slaveholder.

Nashville Republican Banner, Sept. 26, 1840

Some factories hired slaves (such as the ones that bought the two ads on the right). So did steamboats, salt mines, railroads, construction companies, hotels and even mom-and-pop owned grocery stores.

We know this today because you can see advertisements in newspapers in which all types of these business were hiring slave labor.

When the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad was built in the early 1850s, for instance, the company building the railroad hired 500 slaves to help build the rail line.

Nashville Republican Banner, April 23, 1847

When the Tennessee State Capitol was built, architect William Strickland ran ads in the paper hiring between 10 and 12 slaves to “quarry and hoist stone” for the project.

In fact, through this process nearly every type of business in theĀ  South hired slave labor.

* * *

Having said all this, there are limits to what you can learn about slavery from newspaper ads. For instance, newspaper ads don’t tell you much about how slaves were treated on a day-to-day basis. However, a glance at just about any Tennessee newspaper published between 1791 and 1864 makes it very clear that slavery was an inextricable part of the South’s economy; that law enforcement and the courts were part of the institution of slavery; and that newspapers profited from slavery.

One final point: You, too, can research this subject. Call your local county library and ask them if they have, in their collection, newspapers published in that county before the Civil War on microfilm. If so, go read some of them for yourself. You will be amazed at some of the things you learn about this and many other subjects!

Note: Much of the material in this “in search of” section was first published in a book called Runaways, Coffles and Fancy Girls: A History of Slavery in Tennessee. This book is not officially connected with Tennessee History for Kids, but you can learn more about it here.